Grapeland ISD Board Considers Four-Day School Week

By Sarah Naron

Special Correspondent to The Messenger

GRAPELAND – Fridays could soon become a little brighter for students and staff at Grapeland Independent School District, as the GISD Board of Trustees is currently considering abandoning the traditional Monday-Friday school week in favor of a four-day schedule.

Members of the faculty and community gathered at 6 p.m. Monday, January 23, in the Lorena Shoultz Auditorium for a presentation given by GISD Superintendent Don Jackson of what could become the district’s calendar for the 2023-2024 school year.

“This is not something Don Jackson’s trying to do on his way out the door,” said the superintendent, who in December announced his intentions to retire at the conclusion of the 2022-2023 school year. “This is something that our board wanted to investigate. And that’s why we’re here. We’re here to be transparent and open and honest with you about doing something new – a change that might be good for our school district.”

Jackson explained that in 2016, the 84th Texas Legislature afforded public schools in the state the opportunity to amend the way in which the length of the school year is calculated.

“Instead of counting days, they allowed them to count minutes,” Jackson said. “So, they allowed us to have school for a minimum of 75,600 minutes. And those minutes could be appropriated throughout the school year any way you’d like them to be.”

Jackson shared that Olfen ISD – located in the West Texas town of Rowena – was the first district to formulate and implement a “really creative” change by reducing their school week from five days to four.

“The last count I found was 41 districts in Texas – in this school year – have a four-day week, either taking off on Monday or Friday,” Jackson shared. “Seventeen schools in East Texas are doing it, 14 schools in North Texas, seven up in the Panhandle, one in South Texas, and two in West Texas.”

One of the schools nearest to Grapeland ISD to adopt the four-day calendar was Athens ISD, to which Jackson and the administrative team of GISD turned for advice as they began contemplating taking the leap themselves. Among the points stressed by Athens ISD administrators, Jackson said, was the need for the school board to be heavily involved in the planning and the ultimate decision-making body.

“They told us it was really good to make sure it was a board initiative, not a school initiative,” Jackson said. “You have to have your board behind you, and you have to make sure they have the information it takes to make a great decision.”

What most piqued the interest of Jackson and the GISD administrators, he said, was the fact that if a plan is accepted by the board to shorten the school week, there will still be room for adjustments to be made as needed.

“It’s a three-year pilot plan where we take the initiative to do it, and then, for three years, we look at our data,” Jackson explained. “And if it’s not working, we go back to working on what we want to do.”

Jackson and the administrative team were also cautioned by Athens ISD to prepare themselves for opposing viewpoints, which Jackson said he has no issue with.

“It’s okay if you’re against it,” he said. “You’re not going to hurt my feelings or the administrators’ feelings. We said from the beginning, ‘The thing we want most out of this is a unified community and school. That’s what we want the most.”

“We’re trying to be transparent and decide, ‘What is the community threshold of approval?’” Jackson stated. “And our board has to decide that.”

In his presentation, Jackson shared his belief that switching to a four-day calendar will aid the district in its quest to “hire and retain the very best teachers” after noting that two of the district’s former teachers recently left in favor of schools that have already made the switch.

“We think it will improve morale and the culture at the school,” he said. “We did a survey of the staff and it was 94 percent approval. I believe a large majority of your staff would like to see this happen. So, we feel like it’s something innovative we need to look into. We can’t ignore it.”

As Jackson pointed out, the current shortage of teachers facing many parts of the nation has allowed prospective employees to be more selective than in previous job markets.

“We don’t interview teachers,” he said. “Teachers interview us to see if they want to be a part of us. They have their pick, because there is a definite teacher shortage. There are fewer kids in education classes in college. If we don’t do something, it’s not going to help us.”

Adopting a four-day schedule could also help the district get back on track with its student attendance, Jackson said.

“We have not recovered from COVID when it comes to our attendance yet,” he shared. “It’s a struggle to get it back where we need it to be. Staff attendance – we use our substitute teachers a lot.”

The ultimate goal of the calendar change, Jackson said, is to “help make Grapeland ISD an even better place to be.”

The proposed calendar consists of 153 school days and begins in August with new teacher orientation from Monday-Tuesday, Aug. 7-8, followed by several days reserved for staff development before the students start on Tuesday, Aug. 16.

“Last year, we started on the 17th,” Jackson said. “Not a big change at all.”

Rather than immediately being out of session on Fridays, school would continue for five days per week – with the exception of the week during which Labor Day is observed – until October 13.

“We’re going to start school, and prepare and give the teachers a chance to see what’s new,” Jackson explained. “We don’t feel like we can do it this first Friday. That would be like coming the 16th and the 17th and being off on the 18th. No, we’re not doing that.”

Jackson added the proposed calendar would still allow for a fall break, the first two days of which would be used for staff development.

“We start the second nine weeks on the 23rd, and there’s our first Friday off – Oct. 27,” Jackson shared. “Not in August, not in September – this last Friday in October.”

Exceptions to having Fridays off would include weeks during which state testing is set to take place – such as the week of Friday, Dec. 8 – or any week including a holiday that is observed on a Monday, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January.

Under the proposed new schedule, the last day of school would be Friday, May 17.

“We start earlier in August, but we get out earlier,” Jackson pointed out. “And this is some of the hardest days of school right here – when kids know that it’s the end. So, right after state testing’s over, we’ve got one more week, and we’re out. Way before Memorial Day – you can start planning those vacations, if you take them.”

Currently, the school day begins at 7:50 a.m. for elementary students and 7:55 a.m. for junior high and high school students. Under the new schedule, school would begin at 7:40 a.m. and 7:45 a.m. and continue until 4 p.m., as opposed to 3:35 p.m. and 3:40 p.m., adding a total of 35 minutes per day.

Grapeland Elementary School Principal Cassie Satterwhite took the floor to share ideas that she and other GES staff members have come up with in terms of how to use the extra time.

“We talked about Pre-K – right now, they have two recess times, but we would like to add a PE time so that they get a little bit more exercise in the day,” she said. “For our kindergarten, we talked about adding a breakfast time in the morning – like our Pre-K 3 and 4 students have right now – where they go down and eat as a group, and then, we would also add an afternoon recess, so they would have two recess times during the day.”

Students in first grade would see the addition of a snack time following their afternoon recess period, which would be rescheduled for later in the day than it currently takes place.

“For second through fifth grade, we would like to add a time in the day where they could buy snacks from the cafeteria or at least have a free snack,” Satterwhite continued. “Fifth grade eats lunch at 12:30, so we’d like to have them have at least a morning snack or the opportunity to eat something. And then, it would also allow for more time in their science and social studies and/or a homeroom time at the end of the day, because there would be about 25 minutes added to the end.”

A perk of the longer school day, Satterwhite said, would be the implementation of a no-homework policy for the students.

“I don’t think we should have homework if we’re leaving at 4:00,” she said, drawing applause from several in attendance. “Of course, I always believe in reading at home, but there would be no homework that would be due.”

Grapeland Junior High School Principal Channin Spisak reiterated that the school day on her campus would begin at 7:45 a.m. under the new schedule and added that each class period would last for 57 minutes.

“Throughout the day, we are building in extra time for extracurriculars and also study hall opportunities for kids to have intervention in different areas,” she shared. “Right now, we have a hangout that’s around lunch; we’re going to be calling that ‘Sandie Time’. It’ll be time where they’ll have their extracurriculars, Primetime – which will be like an intervention time – and also just time for us to work with the kids on the different things they need.”

The school day would end at 4:05 p.m. According to Grapeland High School Principal Aimee Johnson, the schedule of the high school campus would mirror that of the junior high campus.

“One of the things we’re doing with that extra time is to provide opportunities for kids who don’t typically get to participate in one-act play or things like that,” Johnson said. “We’re going to have an extracurricular period so kids who need extra help can get extra help, or they can participate in extracurricular practices they can’t stay for after school.”

Jackson also shared that the district is working to implement a Friday School program for students who need it.

“We want to get a count of who wants to come to Friday School or needs to come to Friday School, and then we can make the most appropriate plan,” Jackson explained. “Not until then – because we don’t want to design something that nobody comes to.”

The program would be available for a fee, Jackson said.

“Why pay? Because we have to pay the teacher to come,” he explained. “It can’t be free, because if it was free, everybody would come.”

Jackson stressed that Friday School would not simply be a carefree place for students to pass the time, but a day of structure.

“It’s not going to be ‘have your phones out and play all day,’” he said. “It may not be new lessons, but it’s going to be basic skills. Or, if you are a GT (gifted and talented) student, I could envision some kind of enrichment program.”

The possibility of food being provided by the school cafeteria to students who need it on Fridays is also being discussed, Jackson added.

“We tried to let our cafeteria totally off,” he shared. “We checked and said, ‘Hey, can we fix food on Thursday and send it home with the kids for Friday?’ And they said no. So, the only thing we could do is prepare the food and ask you to come get it. No, we cannot bring it to you. This is a situation where we have to meet each other halfway. We can’t drive to every home in the district and give you the food, but we can prepare it and have it ready for you to come get it.”

Like the Friday School program, much of the planning for food provision will be postponed until district officials have collected sufficient information from parents and grandparents regarding how widely needed it is.

“We’re going to start by serving food on Fridays at one location,” Jackson said. “And then, we’ll determine the participation of it. Hopefully, people will come. During COVID, we had it a lot, and a lot of people didn’t show. But you know, times change.”

Jackson also presented the results of a survey taken by GISD staff members and members of the community which was issued to gauge the level of potential support for a four-day calendar. The results show that 75.7 percent of the individuals surveyed would be willing to support the shift from a traditional, five-day school week.

In addition to the overall interest level, the survey also examined some of the most prominent concerns held by staff and community members over the potential new schedule, and the results were as follows:

• 7.6 percent were concerned about students not having a source of food on Fridays.

• 14.4 percent were concerned about a lack of childcare on Fridays.

• 27.8 percent were concerned about extending the length of the school day.

• 31.2 percent had no major concerns.

“Now, did everybody take this survey? No,” Jackson said. “But we hope we got a good view of the concerns.”

Also among the topics addressed by Jackson was how the lack of Fridays would affect GISD’s participation in extracurricular activities.

“We will play games and participate in other competitions on Fridays, just as we always have,” he said. “Any transportation issues will be eliminated. We’ve talked with band, FFA, athletics, and cheer, and they all have plans for their organizations.”

If the new schedule is put in place, Jackson said, data will be reviewed both quarterly and annually to gauge its success.

“We’ll look at student academic success, enrollment numbers, student attendance rates, employee attendance rates, employee retention rates, and the size of the applicant pool for posted job openings,” Jackson explained.

Students, parents, and staff members will also have the opportunity to participate in surveys, he added.

Overall, Jackson believes that the proposed schedule for the 2023-2024 school year is a positive thing.

“It’s a shot in the arm for a profession that is dying right before our eyes,” he said.

‘The Messenger will bring you more information on this topic as it is received.

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